Zen in the Art of Long Tones

I have to spend a few days away from my trombone.
Not really by choice, but because I had to travel last minute to come to my home town and help out my grand mother.
I wasn’t really expecting to take trombone time off right now.
Usually, I plan the weeks in the year where I don’t play.
Not only for lip and muscle recovery, but also because I feel like I need to pull away from time to time.
It gives me a little “creative refresh”.
Just like in a relationship, it’s good to miss it from time to time. Reflect on why and how it is important for me to play.
Not just to play music, but the instrument itself.
Here’s the thing about playing the trombone. Every instrument for that matter, but the trombone and other low brass instruments more specifically.

There is one secret formula to create a beautiful sound : you have to be relaxed.

You have to play effortlessly.

Only if your body is relaxed can you be efficient with your air, letting it go through your body smoothly, and right out through of your mouth and into the instrument.
There is something particularly mystical about creating sounds with the force of our breath.
Our instinctive craving for oxygen, our breath of life, each inhalation and exhalation is the machine keeping us alive. One breath at a time, a few seconds at a time, from day one to day x. And that… makes music?
There is a reason why I have been practicing long tones for hours at a time, since a very early age.
Not only because I am a little bit if a workaholic/music fanatic. I hadn’t realised this until very recently.
When I practice long tones, what happens exactly ?

I search for sound. I search for the best sound, whatever that may mean in that particular moment.

When I was writing my trio album, I was searching for a particular colour, a particular tone that would help me in the expression of my compositions.
When I was practicing for a classical recital, I would have a completely different sound in mind that I was looking for.
It might have been more centered?
More resonant.?
It doesn’t really matter. The interesting part comes during that sound research. 

What happens in the body, what are the sensations to searching for a sound.

In my experience, whether on the trombone, euphonium, and even cello or piano, it always accounts to the same thing : physiological manipulation.

When I play a long tone and I feel and hear an impurity in the sound, I need to get myself in total presence, and observe my self from an exterior ego.
I need an eye out if my body to analyse where that sound impurity might be coming from.
The really cool part is that sometimes it doesn’t come at all from where you would expect it !
Some people would only check their air stream and lips.
But it might come from a tension in your eyebrows.
It might come from your neck, or from the right hand gripping the slide too tightly.
It might even come from a cramp in your foot!
It might also come from a particular thought you have in your head that day and you can’t seem to get rid of it…
This is why when I practice long tones, I start by breathing in, and blowing a sound.
Any sound.
Usually, I position to an F.
More rarely on a Bb.
That doesn’t really matter, although the vibration of a particular tone can make your body feel differently.
I then close my eyes, and go through a whole body scan.
Every time I run out of air, I just do what I would without the instrument:
I take a breath, and then I exhale.
I exhale in the instrument.
Because I am trained, my lips vibrate instantly.
It produces a sound in my instrument.
I continue to scan.
I breathe in peacefully, every time, a bit more relaxed. And breathe out, to that sound.
and Again.
and Again.

The more I get myself relaxed, the better my sound gets.

I dont even think about making the sound good or better.
When my body is tight, the sound gets tickled by an impurity.
When I relax, my body makes itself available to produce freedom in the vibration (my lips), and like magic, it clicks and fits to the instrument’s own acoustics.

It is only after years of practicing like this every morning before sunrise that I have come to learn and realise that those are basically the principals of transcendental meditation.

The mantra varies from F to Bb, and it is repeated, until I am fully present, fully aware, and very clear in the observation of movements of my body.

Air in, air out.

I get very familiar to the touch of my instrument also:
The mouthpiece on my lips.
The slide between my fingers.
The hand stand helping me balance my instrument comfortably.
Even that little inch of slide tickling my left ear from time to time.

These sensations, and the memory of them are so clear in my mind. I can feel the metal right now, as I type all this.

Now here is where the real magic kicks in.
All that practice, all those sensations of the body with the instrument, they get anchored to the feeling of relaxation that comes from doing it.
In Neuro Linguistic Programming, we learn that an anchor can be efficient after 21 repetitions.
Only I didn’t practice 21 times.
I have started playing before my first memories, approximately 300 days per year, to this very day.
The memory is there.
The sensations are more than anchored.
I just have to allow myself to let it express itself.
When I pick up my instrument, and I take a playing position, I have pleasure.
Actual physical well being.
Nothing to do with music, melodies, or even the trombone.
It is the neuro association my body recognises when I pick up my trombone.

My brain is trained to believe that when I pick up my trombone, my body and mind and spirit, will FEEL GOOD.

Just a closing note for teachers out there.

Something you need to be aware of, is when you are being hard on a student, whether it is fair or not, if you make a student feel bad about himself, THAT NEGATIVE FEELING WILL BE ANCHORED TO THE INSTRUMENT.
I know so many people that have given up on music because of bad teachers.
Not because the love of the instrument or of music disappeared. I dont think it ever really does !
More often than not, it is because when they pick up their instrument, they get a negative feeling.
Their brain is anchored to believe that if they pick up their instrument, something bad is going to happen.
The brain then goes into fight or flight mode.
The player gets anxious.
Breathing gets faster.
Palms sweaty.
Mouth dry.
Brain gets foggy.
Memory loss….
When that happens on stage, we call it stage fright.
And that stage fright often comes from somewhere much deeper, much more physiological than just “being scared to play a wrong note”.
Food for thought.
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Zen in the Art of Long Tones

| Blog, personal thoughts, Sound, technique |
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